Zen practice in America: Repairing a boat at sea Barry Magid October 17th 2015

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At one of the Zen teachers discussion groups, there was recently another round of an increasingly common topic, which has to do with the modifications to sesshin practice that the teachers are instituting in response to an aging sangha, but I think primarily in response to the fact that they're getting older themselves. I think it would be an interesting graph to chart the average age of the members of AZTA and have it correlate with the percentage of teachers who sit in a chair full time, and just watch those lines go up, year after year. And I think that increasingly, in most centers, including most residential and even monastic centers, many of the things that we do here, like having long unstructured sitting periods where you can sit and do kinhin at will are becoming more standard. And there is the ongoing attempt, of course, to destigmatize the use of chairs in the zendo.

And yet, in every discussion, people always bring up their own training in Japan, or in the old days, and how hard it is to escape the feeling that that was the real thing, and that what they're doing now is a kind of necessary accommodation to the limitations of age. Just as frequently, this will provoke some discussion about what's the nature of the real thing, and what makes the real real, and what exactly is the problem with the so-called accommodation? If what we're teaching has something to do with impermanence and coming to terms with old age, sickness, and death, it's not clear that what we're trying to teach is that we should all act as if we’re impervious to those things for as long as possible, and keep practicing and sitting as if they weren't happening, and do our best at 60 or 70 to imitate 20 year olds. Is that really wisdom into the nature of impermanence? And yet it's very ingrained in many of us to act just that way, even though when you say it out loud, it doesn't seem to make much sense.

At the same time, there's the question about the modifications that we are making for the sake of an aging sangha and the ways they affect what we think young people should be doing. If you're 25, should you still get up 3:30 in the morning and sit 50-minute periods 16 hours a day, and do the full Antaiji kind of model or Rinzai kind of model? Is that real practice if you can do it? What's the rationale there? Very often it brings us to look at questions about issues of mastery, on the one hand, of facing difficulty, of doing far more than your ordinary ego thinks it can tolerate or handle, whether the cultivation of endurance is in itself part of the spiritual practice, whether the endurance of pain itself is part of a spiritual practice, whether the endurance of sleeplessness is a necessary part of practice.

If we think that it may not make sense for us in our 60s or 70s to do that, what exactly is the point of having anybody do it? Because there is always a dialectic in practice between mastery and surrender, and are we going through all that difficulty in order to be able to master it, to endure more and more severe, ascetic conditions? Or do we do that to push ourselves to a place of surrender, where we let go of mastery, where we give up or give in and just allow ourselves to experience the next thing? Are our extremes of physical pain and sleeplessness really the golden road to surrender? Is that something we're committed to believing? Is it something that is essential to the idea of what Zen is? Is it possible to let go without being in some sense broken into it?

Today in our discussion group we'll begin talking about Thomas Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and one of the questions we'll begin with there is his attempt to look at what exactly is Zen? What's the essence of Zen? And to what extent can we find a pure essence of Zen apart from Zen Buddhism, apart from the cultural and traditional practices of Buddhist monasteries. Does Zen reside in the practice or in an internal experience or perspective? Merton in some way, is going to be very committed to the idea that Zen is inner, and it allows him to then find an identification, or points of contact, between Christian and Zen mysticism in looking at this notion of inner emptiness. One of the things I want to talk with you about is how tenable do we feel that move is? Do we identify Zen with some inner experience that can somehow be separated out from the actual practice of Zen, from a form of life?

So much of what we're doing is gradually trying to adapt the Zen Buddhism we inherited to our lay life in America. Yet, again, we're always in a kind of dialectic between preservation and adaptation. We don't want to start from scratch. There's something about the aspect of surrender in that we give ourselves over to something not of our choice or creation, that we don't put everything up for grabs and make everything a matter of our decision. This is something about giving ourselves over and into a form that we find. If it is given to us, then it can carry us along, and it can contain us. If we are constantly tinkering and changing with it, it can interfere with that sense that we simply have to let go and accept it.

What we're doing in many ways is like the analogy of attempting to repair a boat at sea. We're out in the middle of the ocean in a great sailing ship that is carrying with it lots of supplies, lumber, all the ropes and materials, and adhesives that you need to put together a sailing ship, but there's no place to go into dry dock. Somehow, while the ship is sailing, you very carefully have to try to replace one piece at a time. You can't do too much at once, or the whole boat will come apart and you'll sink. But if you don't engage in that slow, piecemeal process of repair, the whole thing will disintegrate and fall apart before you reach land. That's pretty much the state of our practice now. How do we keep changing our practice while keeping the whole thing afloat and intact?

I hope you'll stay for the discussion afterwards. I'm looking forward to it.

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Barry Magid October 24th 2015 Using practice to keep life at bay

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